“Over the last several decades, we’ve seen a remarkable decline in the number of volunteer firefighters serving our communities,” said Bruce Trego, acting Pennsylvania state fire commissioner, in a prepared statement.
The epidemic stretches all across the United States and has affected the Keystone State greatly.
Jeff Marshall, chief of the Waynesburg-Franklin Township Fire Company, said his department is still functional, but it has taken its fair share of losses in numbers of firefighters.
“When I got in back 30 years ago, we probably had like 60 members. We have 40 now,” said Marshall.
There are several reasons as to why there are less volunteers. Marshall said part of the problem is that departments do not tell people what to expect as a volunteer, and then the volunteers are disappointed when the job isn’t as exciting as what is shown on TV. Many volunteers are bored by volunteering for fundraisers or other remedial tasks, Trego said. The change of America now compared to 50 years ago also contributes, he said.
“Among the more important causes for this are cultural and societal changes; simply put, people today lead busier lives,” Trego said.
To address the issue, State Representative Pam Snyder hosted a committee Oct. 18 with many fire company chiefs, including Trego and Marshall, to discuss the epidemic and how it should be healed. While Snyder was unable to comment, Marshall said the committee was helpful to all parties.
“It was a good thing as far as getting people in the room and just brainstorming,” Marshall said. “The way I look at it, there’s not going to be no easy solution to fix the problem. So, what I think we need to do is hear what everybody is doing and be able to look at it as a buffet, use what works best for your department and implement those changes.”
Marshall said his department is trying to change the volunteer requirements to be broader, so anyone who works or attends school in the department’s area can become a volunteer. More and more departments are also agreeing to mutual aid response, where adjacent fire companies will agree to help with each other’s calls. Trego is trying to make volunteering more convenient.
“One area in which our office is particularly engaged is developing convenient access to training resources,” Trego said. “Online coursework, for instance, eliminates unnecessary costs as well as the travel time associated with the training.”
While gaining volunteers is the primary need, Marshall said, the new volunteers must have the desire to stay. Showing more appreciation to their volunteers, emphasizing the value of their work, is one way Waynesburg fire company gives back, he said.
“Just trying to thank them for what they are giving us and try to [minimize] the wasted time we take out of them.”